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Guilt And “What If”: Two Of My Closest Companions

Updated: Jul 21, 2019

“Our first daughter died during my early labor at 41 weeks.”

I can say that line without crying, like a script or an elevator pitch. I dread the moments when I need to say it, but I am capable of getting the words out.

I’ve accepted that this painful truth is a fact I must carry.

But I have not accepted that there was nothing I could do to prevent my daughter’s death.

This nagging question—What did I do wrong?—remains.

I’ve read books on grief, guilt, out-of-order loss, trauma.

I’ve gone to counseling for nearly three years.

I’ve thought about the loss from every angle and have attempted to use logic to let myself off the hook.

If the cause of death were very gradual, I wouldn’t be likely to notice in the first place, because I’d have grown used to the gradual deterioration. If the cause of death were acute, I couldn’t have prevented it, because it was sudden.

I’ve seen my own story reflected to me in others’ losses, and I cannot see anything these women did wrong.

Offering grace to my self has not come as naturally.

After I lost my daughter, my self-esteem was next. I questioned everything about my role in my daughter’s death.

Was I too excited and not on the lookout for signs of anything less than wonderful?

Was I too anxious about labor to pay close enough attention to the pregnancy itself?

Too curious about how labor would go for me, instead of for the baby?

Not curious enough and too accepting that these things just work out?

I imagine reaching back in time to a pivotal moment, showering some enlightenment upon myself, and setting off a cascade of heroic decisions that align in just the right way to save my baby.

Sometimes, I’ll try the opposite train of thought—to convince myself there was no saving my daughter, that no one could have gotten her here alive, using only the information available then.

My daughter died during a prolific birth season among my network of friends and colleagues.

Dozens of babies lived, and only mine died.

At times I felt like the universe singled me out as an example of horrific luck, and other times I wondered if I was just plain dumb and never realized it until now.

I was well into my grief before I realized the inherent unfairness in comparing my set of circumstances to those of my friends.

Had each person been presented with the same situation I was, I doubt everyone else’s babies would have lived.

It wasn’t that everyone else noticed something I did not, or that they rescued their babies in a way I didn’t. Their pregnancies simply did not present the same life-or-death event that mine did.

Yet the guilt persists. I can only attempt to trust that “old me” wanted to do the right thing, even if the wrong thing is what happened.

A year into my grief, I was looking through old emails and was struck by my own words.

Five years before Cora died, I wrote a friend:

“I have to rest assured that every decision I make, especially being a ridiculously detail-oriented person, was made with the utmost thought and deliberation at that point in time and that I decided what I did for a reason given what I knew or understood at the time, you know? I think that’s important for peace of mind to remember that even if things would have turned out better IF we had handled something differently in the past, we still did what we thought we should at that time and didn’t have the benefit of the clearer picture that developed in time.”

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Eight years before she died, I wrote:

“I think I have a guilt complex where even when I rationally know I’ve done all I can, and even if I would say exactly that to someone in my shoes, I still somehow find a way to feel bad or like I could have done more.”

And 12 years before she died, I wrote:

“I am certain of very little at this point, but go figure. I tend to second-guess and overthink pretty much everything in my life that is of much importance.”

It was as though “old me” reached through the screen to give “new me” a little insight and grace.

I would never have been complacent about something important. Of course, I wish we’d done something, anything, to change the course of events.

I daydream about an enlightening ultrasound, or a comment that raised a red flag, or a different induction date or birth plan, or a hunch that something was becoming unexpectedly dangerous at the last minute.

Whatever it would have taken to get Cora here, alive and well, is what I wish had happened.

When something catastrophic derails your life, something that 99.9% of your childbearing peers will not experience and cannot fathom, it’s hard, if not impossible, to fight the urge to figure it all out.

How did this outcome possibly happen?

In my case, I was quick to implicate myself. I needed an answer, so I dissected every aspect of my pregnancy, from my nutrition to my outlook, to try to solve the puzzle.

But even if I had a total understanding of the medical side or total understanding of my role—neither of which is the case—the issue remains.

My daughter is dead. No explanation will ever be enough to make that fact okay – to truly make sense of it.

Ultimately, I’m left with one complicated conclusion.

Cora was innocent and flawless, born to a mother and a world that are messy, tender, sometimes lovely, and uncontrollably, heartbreakingly imperfect.

Cameron Dunlap

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